Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Art of Gardening

Dames Rocket in a vase.

I was about to sit down to work on a design themed post on the subject of creating a focal point, when a long ago phone conversation that I had with my Mom flashed into my mind. Newly married, my husband and I had moved up from Nova Scotia and had been living in the greater Toronto area for a couple of years. That weekend I had gone on my first ever garden tour.

Goldfish from last summer's pond tour

"It turns out that you are a nobody gardener here Mom, unless your garden has a "water feature". Not a pond, mind you, that's way too country quaint! It has to be a "water feature" or it seems as though your garden is not deemed worthy of being seen by the public."

Water feature! Those two words do have a kind of grand, cinematic ring to them, don't they?

And here I am, all these years later, about to about wax-on about creating a garden "focal point". "Focal point" is another one of those somewhat pretentious terms that has the same flair for the dramatic as "water feature".

In my head, I started to imagine readers, who are always polite and encouraging in their comments, privately regarding their computer screens and rolling their eyes, "Blog posts on creating grand entrances, pathways and now one on focal points! Really, Jennifer! I just want to grow some pretty flowers and be done with it!"

Could all these years in the big city really have turned me into a garden snob who bandies around designer phrases as if I owned them?

Random shot of my front border

Gosh, I hope not! Honestly, I think that there is nothing wrong with a straight-forward, honest-to-goodness flower garden.

Growing up, my mother's garden was both simple and unpretentious. Her garden had no carefully designed layout. There were no curved beds, no sweeping vistas, no bubbling fountain or koi-filled pond. And if you asked her about her garden's "focal point", I am sure she would have told you, that if her garden had a focal point, it was surely the flowers themselves. My mother certainly knew a lot about growing flowers.

In my mother's garden, the beds were straight as arrows. One might think that this lack of artifice was unsophisticated, but actually, this simple design aesthetic was perfectly in keeping with the modern design influences of the late 60's and early 70's.

My mother never, ever, bought annuals like petunias or geraniums.

Having grown up in the depression years of the 1920's, she regarded annuals as an extravagance; throw-away plants that wouldn't last more than a single summer. There was also an element of snobbery in her opinion of annuals; they were common and therefore too ordinary for her tastes.

Her forceful opinions extended to perennials as well. In keeping with her contemporary tastes, she saw no charm in old fashioned cottage garden favourites like bleeding hearts.

Random rose shot. This is 'Clair Renaissance' which is an English Style Shrub rose 
that I admired in the Spargette's garden in Brampton, ON.

And my mother absolutely detested roses! 

And as for hostas, that popular shade garden staple? Well, her garden did not have a single one! To this day, my mother who is still gardening and almost 90, dismisses hosta's as "lazy man's flowers".

My mother created her garden back in the 1970's, when we moved into a Pepto Bismol colored house overlooking the Halifax harbour. (These days, you couldn't buy a car for what my parent's paid for that house!) It was the era of harvest gold appliances, spider plants in macrame plant hangers, hot pants, mini skirts and platform soled shoes.

So what did my mother grow in her garden? A wide range of perennials, but her favourite flowers were poppies.

She had a large collection of annual poppies.

She also had big, bright, orangy-red perennial poppies.

We had a vegetable garden too. It was a squarish, utilitarian patch of earth totally lacking in artifice. The vegetable garden's practical purpose was to provide the family with inexpensive food in the summer months. There were no herbs, no heirloom tomatoes. My mother grew modern, disease-resistant "Beefstake" tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, currants and common vegetables like beans and peas.

My biggest gardening influence has easily been my mother. I still aspire to have a perennial border that is as beautiful as hers was in early July.

I have also gone my own way at the same time. I do have bleeding hearts, roses and hostas in my garden.

And I take a far greater interest in the design aspect of gardening than she ever did.

Does that make my garden somehow better than hers? No!

I will use an analogy to explain the way I look at the comparison. A single violin can produce the most beautiful music. So can a full orchestra. The mix of different musical instruments in an orchestra adds complexity through layers of sound, but the music is not necessarily more appealing than a haunting melody played on a single violin.

My mother prefers the violin. I like to mess about with orchestral pieces. For me the design aspect of gardening adds an interesting level of complexity to more straightforward flower gardening.

It is your turn to have your say. Who or what have been your biggest influences in the way you approach gardening?


  1. Wonderful memories! My mother was not a gardener but my aunt was. We lived in the city and owned a two flat together. When my aunt came down in the small 30 foot wide yard to garden, I followed her around. I grew vegetables, rhubarb, corn and morning glories up the side of the garage. She grew peonies, cannas, small rose bushes and everything was as straight as an arrow.


  2. I remember the garden we had when I was a child. It would be called a cottage garden style today, with peonies and roses and bleeding hearts. It is a happy memory for me. I also hold dear the gardens of the forest from many years of camping, and that is why native plants are important in my gardens today. So where I have some sunshine I plant cottage gardens and where it is shady I plant wildflowers.

  3. There have been 2 influences on my style of gardening. My Nana loved gardening and certainly was much more of a cottage gardener then I am. Now some of her favs ie: snowdrops, live in my garden today. My other huge influence is certainly most English gardens. I love the formal structure of Sissinghurst, The Grove, The Laskett etc.
    I, for one, am enjoying your series on design features, they are very dear to my heart, and I wish more gardeners used them.

  4. Lovely post, I'm not that good at gardening but I try to improve. :-)

  5. So true Jennifer. It's so easy to get wrapped up in the 'should haves' and forget that the only 'should be' is that gardens are a source of joy to their owners and creators.

  6. I only discovered my 'love' of gardening a few years back and started off by reading plant labels and books, including design books. I've only ever used that information as a 'guide' and there never really is any rhyme nor reason in what I do except that to me, it looks pretty.

  7. Mój ogródek jest moją oazą spokoju. Mam więc tam takie rośliny, które lubię. Są tam i te które sadziłam wiele lat temu, ale i doszły różne pnące się po domku i drewnianych kratkach.Mam też malutkie oczko wodne, bo lubię patrzeć na wodę i słuchać jej szumu. To mnie uspokaja.Bardzo dziękuję za miłą wizytę u mnie. Ja też kładę ręcznik blisko drzwi wejściowych, żeby pieskowi wytrzeć łapki ze śniegu po powrocie ze spaceru :-). Pozdrawiam. *** My garden is my haven of peace. So I have such a plant there, which I like. They are there and the ones that I thought many years ago, but reached different climbing through the house and wooden boxes. I also have a small pond, because I like to look at the water and hear its noise. It calms me. Thank you for the nice visit with me. I also put a towel near the front door to wipe feet pieskowi the snow after returning from a walk :-). Yours.

  8. Oh my, I remember those "macrame plant hangers"!! This sure was a trip down memory lane :)

  9. I love your mother..and feel almost sure, we are the same 'vintage'. Her rose and hosta comments...well we can cut her some slack cause like me, she's a bluenoser...and that just the way we roll.

    This blog entry was perfectly perfect. Thank you. Very much..thank you.

    My focal point..the vegetable garden, surrounded by flowers. That's only right, don't you think. A strong marriage, always a pleasure to gaze upon.

  10. Different tastes for different times. I get most of my gardening influence from books. My dad and grandfather grew vegetables, but as far as flower gardens, I didn't start looking at them until I started gardening myself. In a few years time, I'm afraid our gardens may be passe. What's most important is the joy our gardens bring.

  11. When I say, I didn't grow up in the depression years, but, the 70's are a vivid memory, me in my twenties, your mom about fifty I expect. I wonder if that pepto bismol house didn't go beautifully with the flowers and greens in the garden. Sure they did.

  12. I love the description of your mother's garden because it reminds me so much of my own mother. She would never stoop so low as to PAY for a plant! annuals were unheard of and perennials came from friends. She used seeds bought for a small pittance at the hardware store for her vegetables and yet the garden she created was a riot of colour and contained some of the most amazing flowers, most of which she couldn't even name. Although my mother and I may not agree on how we garden (unlike her I'm a stickler for plant names!) her garden is most definitely my single greatest influence.

  13. What a lovely tribute to the mothers' gardening skills. You write very well so this is a beautiful read. My mother is now 81 and in previous years i "detest" her gardening style. She has the famous "green thumb" that every top she inserts on the ground grow, and the spot happens to be anywhere that seems obvious to her. I had the episode of secretly pulling out those newly planted shoots, to decrease the population of chaotic growths. Eventually, when i don't stay there anymore but just visit a few weekends, i realized my distaste is just a matter of perspective. Instead of calling it chaotic, now i call it biodiversity garden. And i don't have the difficulty in my consciousness anymore! I actually posted about this long ago, but i don't write as well as you, am envious. Any you photographed very well too.

  14. Thank you Jennifer. I have been remembering my mother and her garden all day. She worked so very hard on the farm and her flower gardens were always tended at dusk after the chores were done. As a toddler I was often kept busy picking pansies and told that their little face were watching over me. I was allowed to pick bouquets of lilacs for the neighbours. My sister and I made headbands of delphinium blossoms. Mom would scrub us up and send us off to weddings with a basket of peony petals to toss at the bride. Her garden was a magical place for little girls. I think of her often and her spirit is with me in my garden. She would approve of all the tried and true prennials she taught me to love in her Ontario garden and she would marvel at our wonderful Nova Scotia additions. It has been a lovely day of remembering.Thank you again.


  15. Lovely posting about your mom and her gardening methods. I would say my garden, while it has curved lines, is very much like your mom's. I love your crackled technique on the photos.
    My biggest influence? Hard to say.... have lived many places and enjoyed gardening more and more with each location. I think my neighbors in Germany sparked my love for the 'English Garden' type beds. My mom gardened a little...though quite the opposite of yours, she views perennials as weedy. go figure

  16. Your post couldn't have come at a better time. Winter is so ferocious at the moment that it is demoralizing . Yet, your flower photos brought a smile to my face.

  17. When I was a child, I followed Papa around as we shallowly buried soaker hoses in his front beds. He taught me to prune the Concords, and then to make wine. How to sterilize the dirt in the oven, and then grow mushrooms. We would listen to Cubs games on the radio and pitch the crabapples that fell into the compost bins. I remember his impatiens growing from seed in the dining room and getting as tall as my knees in the summer. At the time, I didn't know we were bonding, I thought we were gardening....
    Years later, his body succumbing to pancreatic cancer, I would carry him from his bed to the bathroom sink so I could help him shave. The shaving was never difficult or awkward because of the time we spent together in the gardens.

  18. What a great post this is Jennifer, and I truly enjoyed reading it. Thank you!!

    The biggest influence around the way I garden, is my photography (surprise!!) There are certain plants/flowers that I just love to photograph, so there are always plenty of those. Most everything is laid out so that I can get into the beds with a tripod and not crush everything in my path. I also have to allow for a relatively short growing season, and very long cold winters.

    I am definitely with your Mom on the poppies and the hosta! :-)

  19. I am sure you know my answer to your question, Jennifer. So instead, I want to say how beautiful your images are in this post and what a wonderful piece you wrote about your mother and her influence. GGW has a theme on 'What I Learned From My Mother' and you should submit this post or link to them.

  20. Loved your posts and pictures.
    Most of the perennial flowers I have in my gardens are considered throw aways from my neighbour. She didn't like them because they flopped over too much or grew too high or just didn't like them. In my childhood, gardens meant vegetables and fruits, as I grew up on a farm in Souther Ontario. We actually fed a lot of friends and realtives that lived in cities. There were some flowers around the house and pump house but, they were certainly low maintenance perennials.

  21. Your flowers and photos are beautiful. Loved how your mother's garden influenced you.
    Thanks for stopping by and visiting my Barn post. It would be interesting to compare pictures taken by different photographers and different cameras.

  22. Me encantan tus fotografías, son muy bellas!! y sueño con tener un jardín lleno de flores.un abrazo grande!

  23. LOVE that shot of your perennial border with the rudbeckia in front - so vibrant, makes me feel like summer for a moment. My grandmother and father were my family influences. I have peonies and lilacs in my garden now, just like the ones that my grandma used to pick and bring in buckets for us kids to decorate graves on Memorial Day.

  24. Jeniffer girl this was an extraordinary post !
    You have explained the way I feel about gardening more perfectly than I ever could (I get tongue tied or is that typing finger tied ? LOL) .. YES ! to all manner of gardening.
    Funny enough one of my doctors (I have a lot of them with complicated issues but gardening is the best medicine ever !) anyways he asked a very significant question when I said I was willing to deal with the extra pain to be in my garden and puttering .. he asked " do you garden for yourself or your neighbors ?"
    I was shocked .. at first I didn't know what he meant .. then I clued in .. was I gardening to impress my neighbors ? NEVER !!!
    Of course I like hearing compliments from them .. but to garden for my neighbors impressions ? LOL .. that struck me as too funny! .. so my doctor "got it" .. that I am head over heals in love with my garden and plants and I could not care less what my neighbors or friends thought of it.
    Sorry for the long winded story but it seemed relevant to what you have said here .. thank you for wording it so well !
    Sweet Autumn .. I bought them at Canadian Tire for much less than Garden Import I suspect .. so if you wait and cruise other garden centers you may find it at a more reasonable cost !
    I have to go to garden Import for specific plants that I can't find else where .. plus make sure you look at Canning Perennials and Gardens Plus .. two excellent mail order plant companies in Ontario .. I recommend them highly!
    I loved these pictures Jennifer ! You should blow them up and frame them : )

  25. AHHHH! Your Mom sounds so cool! My grandmother was a rose gardener. She grew the most beautiful roses that I appreciated even as a small child. Like your mom there was no formal "design plan" to her garden. She just grew what she loved. So bravo to your lucky are we to have learned from true gardeners!

  26. Well even if you think I am just being polite, I don't care, that is one hell of a post you have in front of me at this moment. Covers just about everything which I hold dear, except mum in hot pants aged 40. Over the many years that we have been gardening we have followed trends, well lets say to a certain extent. These days we just try to make the garden look as good as we are capable of doing, and find great contentment in it.

  27. There's a lot to be said for a violin solo. :)

    The answer to your question would make a good subject for a blog post.

    Great post Jennifer. I really enjoyed it and your beautiful photos.

    (Avacado green was a big part of '79's design too. Ugh. LOL!

  28. I'm sitting here realizing I'm not sure I have an answer to your question. To me a flower garden signifies permanence, that someone cared enough about where they live to make it beautiful. Having moved 17 times in 34 years, I created gardens to prove that I had lived there - that I wasn't ephemeral. I've lived in VA 8 1/2 yrs which is longer than I've ever lived anywhere. My garden shouts "I'm here!!" While I"m still working on the design, it exists in such stark contrast to the bare yards around me that it's almost an anomaly. Your mom sounds fiesty. I like her already!

  29. Gorgeous warm weather nature images. I wish I had the space for a garden in my tiny yard.

  30. Hi Jennifer

    I love the visions you've created about your mother's garden. I could almost see all the poppies dancing in the Nova Scotia breeze.
    Thanks for visiting my little blog project and leaving a comment. I'm following you now and have subscribed so I don't miss a posting.

  31. I have just spent a lovely time exploring your blog, thanks for visiting mine and leaving a comment. Fantastic photos, especially of your paeonies, they are wonderful! BTW we used to have a Sheltie and 2 rabbits, many, many years ago, thanks for the memories!!

  32. My Mother was my biggest influence .........

  33. Lovely post! balck & white photo: the backyard, 5-6 years old in a small town in the Mediterranean, my nanny teaching me about plants, herbs to use in the kitchen grapes just cut from vines, etc,; and at night jasmin flowers in my bedtable for sweet dreams. I still ask sher in my mind how to do this or that.

  34. I have some aunts and uncles in the Maritimes who grow roses that are descendants of their grandmother's rose bush. I struggle with weeds, but love my blooms!

  35. What a great post, Jennifer! I have met a few garden snobs in my time--a fellow MG this summer scolded me (nicely) for buying some 'Autumnn Joy' sedum on clearance. Apparently she thought they were too ordinary and recommended a different cultivar. I don't think I'll be inviting her anytime soon to visit my garden:)

    Your mother sounds like a wonderful lady and much like my own mother. I don't have a water feature, and though I try, I often don't have a focal point. In fact, I always warn people before visiting that what I really have are a bunch of different flowerbeds that aren't connected in any way. My garden is simple, but it pleases me, and I think that's what a garden is all about.

  36. Your mom sounds absolutely charming! As to your question, I would say that the climate has been the biggest factor in my gardening choices. The tropical looks that I love is hard to come by in such a skitzo climate...but I try! I like what Rose said..."my garden is simple, but it pleases me". Amen to that!

  37. Beautiful post...... It is nice to appreciate the differences in each of us, even in the way we approach gardening... The nearest, a mother and daughter will differ somewhere along the way.....

  38. I love your post. Beautiful and lovely post. The blog is inspiring and very nice to appreciate in gardening.

  39. Yet another absolutely captivating post from beginning to end. You have a knack for drawing your reader in with elegant, articulate prose and mind blowingly beautiful images! My mother instilled a love of gardening in me. I have evolved on my own path since but still regard her as my guiding star.

  40. I can appreciate the "forceful opinions" of a gardener and am happy to hear your mom is still gardening. Great photos too.
    All-Purpose Flower

  41. Wonderful post! I'm also a poppy-aholic...I'm growing a few new varieties, both annual and perennial, to add to my garden this year. Can't find a prettier flower. :)


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